Saturday, April 25, 2009

Torture Apologists Demolition Derby

Detail from the right ("Hell") panel of Hieronymous Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (c. 1500)

Ever since the photos from Abu Ghraib prison were revealed to the world, Bush administration officials repeated the mantra “the U.S. does not torture.”

Then President Obama released the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos rationalizing the use of torture on alleged al Qaeda prisoners. Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its report on the torture memos. Its unanimous opinion was that the U.S. has indeed engaged in torture, and that those practices were initiated at the highest levels of the Bush administration—in other words, contra the claims of the Bush administration and its apologists, not as the result of misbehavior by a few low-level bad apples. We now have enough evidence to construct a detailed chronology of the events leading to the officially approved use of torture by the U.S. government and the reactions to that practice to present. (Note: The Foreign Policy chronology includes numerous links to various reports relating to the torture issue. The Senate Armed Services Committee report can be found here.)

Faced with an increasing body of detailed evidence, official Washington has responded in with various evasive strategies.

The congressional GOP has responded largely by trying to deflect attention from the issue of torture.

Chris Matthews interviews (I almost said "interrogates") Mac Thornberry (R, Outer Obstructia) about accountability for torture in light of the release of the Senate Armed Services Committee's report about torture.

Notice Thornberry's rhetorical defenses:
  1. Refusal to use or acknowledge the word "torture."

  2. Claim that investigating the issue will distract from the "war on terror."

  3. Claim that prosecuting illegal acts relating to torture of detainees "changes the rules" and will demoralize the CIA in its pursuit of terrorists.

  4. Claim it was the work of a few bad apples.

  5. Refusal to acknowledge the obvious--that directions to use torture, embodied in the torture memos, are the responsibility of those at the top, including Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice et al. Refuse to acknowledge it even after Matthews reads to you (twice) the explicitly stated conclusion in the Senate Armed Services Committee report that the orders, and hence, responsibility for the use of torture came from the top of the chain of command.

  6. The dog ate my homework.

Meanwhile Ta-Nahisi Coates has a video of an interview on MSNBC by O'Donnell O’Donnell with Liz Cheney which indicates clearly that Cheney is preparing to mount a very aggressive defense of his record in the White House, particularly with reference to torture.

It's interesting to note Liz Cheney's approach to the evidence revealed thus far:

  • O'Donnell: Are you prepared to admit that the OVP was the prime mover in the decision to use torture?

  • Cheney: Obama never investigated “effectiveness” of “harsh interrogation techniques” before forbidding them. (Note that the response, whether true or not, is irrelevant to the question.)

  • Cheney: The techniques did not constitute torture because they were used by SERE (ignoring the fact that SERE was set up to train U.S. military personnel to withstand techniques used by North Korea to exact FALSE CONFESSIONS from prisoners).

  • O'Donnell: U.S. prosecuted people after WW II for waterboarding—it’s torture.

  • Cheney: Waterboarding gave us valuable info. [She references Michael Hayden/Mukasey op-eds in favor of the use of torture (described euphemistically, of course). Note again that the response is irrelevant to the question.]

  • O'Donnell: Dennis Blair op-ed stated that there's no way to know if other techniques could have gotten us the info.

  • Cheney: Blair stated in an internal memo that "harsh interrogation techniques" were “effective”; the Obama White House censored the statement. Four former CIA directors approved the use of these methods. [Note shifting of blame again to Obama and use of simultaneous appeal to authority (former CIA directors) and appeal to the majority (four former CIA directors)

  • O'Donnell: What was the role of the OVP in torture memos?

  • Cheney: The CIA began the process, not the OVP; the OLC memos were very careful about what could be done & for how long. She claims that O'Donnell has been reading from AP headlines—not what the memo says, and stonewalls on the issue of the OVP as prime mover. Cheney then repeats that the interrogation approach was "a good program" which was widely supported. [Cheney's claim that the CIA initiated the process conflicts with evidence that the impetus for use of torture came from Dick Cheney. Moreover, there's evidence that the true motive for use of torture was to "find" evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda in the leadup to the invasion of Iraq. See Alice in Wonderland for reference. There is also substantial evidence that Dick Cheney weilded tremendous influence within the Bush administration from behind the scenes. See Barton Gellman's Angler for details.]

  • O'Donnell: Use of torture by the US portends the future use of torture against US military personnel.

  • Cheney: It's not torture. [This is the "La la la--I can't hear you" defense.]

  • Cheney: Revealing our interrogation techniques gives info to our enemies. [A repetition of the McCarthyite insinuation used during the Bush administration that criticism equates to treason.]

  • Cheney: Info gained via use of "harsh interrogation techniques" saved American lives. [This is contradicted in an op-ed article by a former FBI interrogator in the NY Times this week. ]

In short, Liz Cheney's defense amounts to:
  1. Repeated denials that “harsh interrogation techniques” outlined in the torture memos and the Senate Armed Services Committee report are torture.

  2. Claims that the techniques were effective.

  3. Use of appeals to the majority (four former CIA directors, widespread support for the program).

  4. Use of appeals to authority (former CIA directors support the program; accusations that the interviewer has been getting her information from “AP headlines” implicitly makes an appeal to authority—you don’t know what you’re talking about, but we do).

  5. McCarthyite insinuations that those who criticize the program, especially Obama, are either foolish or unpatriotic, and in either case, are weakening America’s security.
A few points:

1. The claim that torture is effective, whether true or not, is irrelevant to the question of the legality of such practices, as noted by Anonymous Liberal.

2. As noted above, a former FBI interrogator who broke Abu Zubaydah using standard, non-violent interrogation methods, has contradicted that assertion in the NY Times this week. Other interrogators have given similar testimony.

3. The choice to use torture was made based on mistaken notions of the SERE program, which, contrary to Liz Cheney, was designed to help U.S. service personnel withstand torture at the hands of the Chinese and North Koreans designed to elicit false confessions. In no way did use of torture techniques in the SERE program legitimize such methods; rather, the purpose of their use was to harden U.S. military personnel in the expectation that they would be subjected to such techniques, which our government--like all other signatories to the Geneva Conventions--considered illegal and immoral, as the United States did consistently until the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

4. The extent to which former Bush administration officials and their apologists are willing to go to avoid use of the word "torture" is striking. It would be comical if the consequences of their sophistry were not so serious. As has been noted by a number of other observers, the United States prosecuted Nazis at the Nuremberg trials for waterboarding. It was considered torture by us then; how can it be that the same practice has been magically transformed into something benign by a handful of absurdly reasoned OLC memos?

5. Nor should we allow the torture mongers and their apologists to confuse the issue by considering any given torture practice in isolation. We now know that in practice, the various torture techniques approved by the Bush administration were performed in combination over an extended period of time--as they were intended to be. In fact, thanks to stellar work by Marcy Wheeler, we now know that Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 183 times (and someone else 83 times), apparently due to intense pressure from the Bush administration to find evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda.

6. The net effect of these practices? Over 25 people died in U.S. custody, some others committed suicide, and some were reduced to a vegetative state. Who were these people? As it happens, due to reliance on bounty hunters and lack of familiarity with the local languages, the U.S. military didn't know who was an al Qaeda member and who was not. The award-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, focuses on the beating death of a young Afghan cab driver at the hands of American interrogators using the practices approved by the Bush administration. There have been a number of other such cases. In addition to the direct physical effects of such brutality, our international reputation has been badly damaged due to our use of such techniques. We have lost the moral authority we used to rely on when condemning the use of cruel treatment by foreign governments. Who will take us seriously now when we make such complaints? What other country will be able to play such a role in our absence?

7. Given the above considerations, it is curious that the mainstream media continue, by and large, to avoid use of the term "torture." One might think they were adhering once again to that artificial, process-based formula for supposed absence of bias whereby the reporter, confronted with free use of a term by one party to a dispute, and strenuous objections to its use by the other, refrains from using the term in an attempt to avoid picking sides--regardless what the term is, what its widely accepted use is, or what its relation to a given context or topic may be. Thus the GOP objects (obviously, on purely tactical grounds) to use of the word "torture' to describe the SERE interrogation techniques adopted by the Bush administration, and in response, our toothless news media obligingly refrain--thereby enacting (however inadvertently) a consensual attitude of denial with reference to the issue of torture. One of the most shameful episodes in our country's history is treated by the mainstream media as The Unpleasantness That Shall Not Be Named at precisely the time when we have an opportunity to embark on an honest national conversation about what our values are and should be with reference to treatment of prisoners in particular, and human rights in general. See Glenn Greenwald for more on this.

8. Nor are many Democrats eager to take on the issue of torture--largely because of their own complicity in it. In fact, Obama himself has been rather tentative about the whole issue himself, delivering several seemingly contradictory statements about investigations of the authors of the torture memos.

9. All of which, it seems to me, indicates the need for a vigorous effort on the part of those of us who believe this issue is far too important for the United States to neglect, to pressure the Obama administration and Congress to conduct a thorough investigation via an independent prosecutor to ascertain responsibility for our government's adoption of torture techniques and to bring the guilty to justice. If we don't, we can be sure that this or something even worse will happen again in the future.


I know, this is already all over the web, and clearly I'm late getting to it. But the more people post it, the more likely it is that additional people will see it, and God knows I want every sentient adult in the United States of America to see it, to reflect on what it means that our own government decided to ape the methods of a totalitarian dictatorship (or a banana republic, for that matter), and to act on that knowledge.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Health Care--Public Plan Choice

I think inclusion of a public plan choice in President Obama's health care plan is so important for a number of reasons, I'm going to quote an e-mail I received on the subject in full:

THANKS to all who made calls! When Congress returns from April recess, they will negotiate a merged version of the House and Senate health care reform budget bills - We're on the road to reform! But, is it the kind of reform we want?

The PUBLIC PLAN choice is the most important and most controversial aspect of reform. Without it, Americans without workplace insurance will continue be uninsured, private insurers will continue to go unchecked, and we will lose our opportunity to contain health care costs" according to the New America Foundation.

The problem is that Senator Schumer has not officially backed the public option. We need the public VOICE to fight for the public plan CHOICE. Here's how YOU can help:

1. Urge Senator Schumer to support the public plan choice. Call his NY office at 212-486-4430.
2. Stay informed. Sign up up for health reform alerts at
3. Come to one of our health reform events listed below. Meet new people and have fun! New ideas are welcome!


Wed, May 6: NYCforChange Comedy Show - "Stand Up for Health Care"
Because, a spoonful of comedy makes the medicine go down! Co-hosted with LaughingLink Liberally.
One night only! 7:30 to 9PM, the Tank on 45th btw 8th and 9th, RSVP: here


Thurs, April 23, 7:30PM: - Be Bold Cocktails Fundraiser
Great party for a great organization. Hosted by Echoing Green, a nonprofit social venture fund for social entrepreneurs. Special music performance by Amos Lee. Prince George Ballroom,15 E 27th St.Tix $95 or $120 at the door. To purchase tix, click here.

Thurs, April 23rd, 7PM: Health Care for America NOW - Reform Advocacy Training
Deixler Home, 9 Stoneycrest Rd. Rye, 10580. RSVP: restroff@gmail.comLink

Sat, April 25: Hands on NY Day
Help plant trees for Earth Day with the Manhattan Young Democrats!

Wed, April 29, 3:30– 5pm: Forum on Immigrants and Health Reform
New York Immigration Coalition
137-139 W 25th St, 12th Floor,;

May 7: Labor's Stake in Health Care for All.
Hosted by NYC Labor Unions and Rekindling Reform. 101 6th Ave; 5 to 8PM

Thurs, May 14th, 7:30pm: Westchester Health Care Reform Town Hall Meeting
Greenburgh Town Hall Auditorium, 177 Hillside Avenue Greenburgh, NY 10607,

May 21: Guest Speaker - Richard Kirsch, Health Care for America NOW
Save the Date! Hosted by DL21C, Location TBA.

May 30, 7PM: Living Liberally Annual Celebration
Meet Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
DCTV Firehouse, 87 Lafayette St.
RSVP: here
GO VIRAL! Invite your friends and family to help make health care a reality for all!

Nina Agrawal MD

Founder, NYCforChange

Member, National Physician's Alliance - NYC Action Network

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Teabags and Tax Rates, Real and Imagined

Here’s a puzzle:

Despite the fact that income inequality in the U.S. has increased dramatically over the past 27 years, there has not been a leftward shift in economic policy in the U.S., as noted by Brad DeLong.

Conservative former Bush administration Treasury Department economist Bruce Bartlett notes that not only does the U.S. have lower tax rates than all but 4 of the 30 countries in the OECD, but the median American family in 2007 (he didn’t have the data yet for 2008 but was sure it’s even lower than it was in 2007) had a lower effective tax rate than any American generation since 1950.

Steve Benen used Bartlett’s data to create a graph illustrating this.

Bartlett’s conclusion? “I believe this was largely a partisan exercise designed to improve the fortunes of the Republican Party, not an expression of genuine concern about taxes or our nation's fiscal future.”

He notes in conclusion:
People should remember that while they have the right to their opinion, they are not entitled to be taken seriously. That only comes from having credibility gained by the correct presentation of facts and analysis and a willingness to be even-handed--criticizing one's own side when it is wrong and not only speaking up when the other party does the same thing.

None of the above, however, seems to have affected the perceptions or behavior of the teabaggers or their cynical political and media promoters. Roy Edroso at alicublog visits the teabaggers’ hearts of darkness.

What do you think accounts for the teabagger phenomenon? Add your two cents in the Comments section below.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Piracy, Highway Robbery, Logic and Methods

Much media attention has been paid to the piracy situation off the coast of Somalia. I was directed to a blog post claiming that the pirates are essentially modern-day Robin Hoods.

Some things about this post didn't add up right away:
  1. The situation in Somalia is chaotic; in fact, it's as close to a state of pure anarchy the modern world has ever seen.

  2. In the absence of a government, there’s no entity to protect the interests of the people inhabiting the territory formerly considered to be the country of Somalia. Ergo, there’s a huge power vacuum.

  3. ‘Vacuum’ can be translated as ‘opportunity’ for the more ruthless actors in pursuit of self-interest (however defined). This includes European and Asian companies who dump toxic & nuclear waste off the coast of multiple developing countries (including Africa & the Middle East); European fishing fleets that are depleting the fishing stocks off the coast of Somalia; and various actors with various motives, ranging from protest against these practices to naked self-aggrandizement, who engage in piracy.

  4. Yet Johann Hari’s article & the post based on it both portray the pirates primarily as modern-day Robin Hoods.
I have no problem with the proposition that some of the pirates are acting on noble motives; however, the notion that an opinion poll in Somalia in the current context (How would anyone get access to enough people in that chaos to develop a statistically meaningful sample? What methodology was used?) could have an iota of validity in concluding that 70% of the public held opinion X is laughable. It is true that Hari couches his argument by saying “No, this doesn't make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters.” However, the thrust of his argument, in essence, is this:
  1. Privateers in the “Golden Age of Piracy” were acting in rebellion against hideous conditions.

  2. Somalis face hideous conditions.

  3. Ergo, Somalis who engage in piracy (not all, but by implication, most) are also rebelling against hideous conditions.
The argument, in short, makes a leap in logic between b & c above. The two situations are, in some important respects, similar. Does that mean they’re the same?

There’s no doubt in my mind (how could there be?) that the conditions faced by Somalis are hideous—they have been for quite a long time. But I seriously doubt that Hari or his pollster have any way of determining how many pirates are acting out of a sense of injustice, how many are in it for the considerable financial rewards, how many out of plain hunger, how many because they’re career criminals who’ve found a new opportunity, etc.

None of this, btw, means in any way that European companies aren’t dumping toxic wastes off the shores of Somalia or depleting Somalia’s fish stock. There’s plenty of evidence of both. I just question whether, in a context of total anarchy and violence, it is logic or even honest to claim knowledge of the motives of an unknown number of social actors (most of whom, one would assume, having a strong motive not to reveal themselves at all).

So what is the situation in Somalia, anyway?

At a 3/10/09 Center for Strategic and International Studies (C.S.I.S.) conference: “Challenges for Renewed Engagement in Somalia,” Michael Weinstein argued the following:
  • There are multiple narratives in re Somalia:

  1. US terrorism narrative

  2. The narrative of Somalis in the various factions involved in the conflict

  3. European chemical/nuclear dumping offshore

  4. Bottom line: There are multiple actors & no one interest-backed narrative prevails..

  • There is no government on the ground in Somalia.

  1. Current conflict not a government vs insurgency situations; instead, multiple parties, each controlling its own portion of territory.

  2. Aggregation of different interests within various territories, revealing a situation of decentered civil conflict.

  • We need to look at all the narratives of all the different actors in the situation.

  1. If political orientation and balance of power among the various regional actors remains as it is now, Somalia will be dominated by Islamic political formulas.

  2. If civil conflict & power centralization within the various regions continues, most likely result will be cantonization.

Here's Weinstein’s analysis of the competing narratives at CSIS Conference.

Here's a detailed outline of the political situation on the ground.

Here's a detailed discussion of waste dumping problem, particularly as relates to Lebanon, but making clear the dumping is by developed countries & the targets are developing countries. This includes countries in the Middle East as well as Africa, btw. No mention of South America or Asia, but it would be valuable to know if those areas are subjected to this as well. Part 1 of 2.

What are European motives in re waste dumping?

Here's an article from Al Jazeera about the pirates’ motives.

Who are the pirates? Here's a BBC story containing anecdotal evidence of non-altruistic motives.

Here's a series of articles about the pirates (scroll down).

What's the bottom line on all this? The situation is miserable and not likely to get better any time soon. It is highly doubtful that the U.S. will do anything about the dumping or fish stock depletion, resorting only to military force in response to acts of piracy. I leave it to others to comment on European responses to the situation. The Obama administration continues to see Somalia through the frame of terrorism, as did its predecessor (although, thankfully, Obama is not stupid, deluded nor insane, so we’re not likely to see a repetition of Bush administration efforts that made the situation even worse than it was at the outset). Additionally, Obama faces multiple crises across the board. Somalia is very low on the list. Ergo, little to no change can be expected.

The Koh Nomination--Data Source

Yale Law School's website has a page full of information on the Koh nomination.

[H/T to Balkinization for the link]


Andrew Sullivan links to this video on open-mindedness. I consider it a kind of public service announcement.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Open for Debate

Here’s a collection of links to stories I found interesting but haven’t got time to write about.

Ezra Klein says (and Matthew Yglesias agrees) that the G-20 meeting done good.

Department of What-the-Hell-Are-They-Thinking.

Department of What-the-Hell-Are-They-Thinking, Part 2.

Think you’re up on the news? Here’s a news IQ quiz, courtesy of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press.

In the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? One arising, at least in part, due to the dismantling of regulatory oversight? Weaken yet another regulation. Brilliant...

Eric Martin argues that a good man was hounded out of a position on the National Intelligence Council.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The GOP Outrage Industry is At It Again

We're all preoccupied with our daily lives, plus many of us are also devoting whatever extra time we have to mobilizing support for President Obama's budget, health care reform, etc. There are so many problems to deal with and so little time. Amidst all this, the travails of one of President Obama's appointees may seem a trivial matter, but it's part of a larger pattern—one which, if allowed to continue unchecked, will not only hamper the Obama administration’s ability to function, but will ensure that decent, principled people avoid government service like the plague.

You may remember from the Clinton presidency that the GOP's outrage professionals and their echo chamber essentially smeared and catcalled many of Clinton's appointees and policies into collapse. Now that the GOP is out of the White House, the same old tactics are coming back with a vengeance. The way it works is this:

  1. Some GOP hack distorts or completely manufactures "facts," and accuses a nominee of harboring extreme views.

  2. The accusation is picked up by the GOP outrage industry, which repeats the charge endlessly.

  3. The mainstream media (you know, the ones who’re supposedly biased against the GOP), mindlessly picks up on the story (after all, it involves conflict) and reports on it, thereby perpetuating the charges & giving them huge exposure. Or, the media just ignores what’s going on, allowing the hysterical charges to become THE story.

  4. Yet another intelligent, decent person is hounded out of a job..

Barack Obama has nominated Harold Koh, Dean of Yale Law School, to be legal adviser to the State Department. The outrage industry is claiming (falsely, of course) that Koh believes Sharia law should be used in the U.S. The mainstream media is so far silent on this. The same thing, by the way, is being done to Dawn Johnsen, who Lithwick terms "one of the most qualified candidates ever tapped to head the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department." She now faces a filibuster in the Senate because no one moved a muscle to protect her from right wing smears.

That leaves it up to a network of obsessive, argumentative loudmouths (i.e., people like me) to grab a lantern, jump on a horse, and wake up everyone in the countryside.

People—Please read this excellent post by Dahlia Lithwick about the situation.

Then write/blog/call your friends, anyone with contacts in the media, etc. Let’s clear the air & expose the GOP’s outrage industry for the sham that it is. Smear tactics are repulsive and a threat to democracy.

Here’s why it’s important to respond to this stuff quickly:

A great deal of research in cognitive psychology has shown that:
  1. People tend to use their first impressions of something as a cognitive template for categorizing other, seemingly similar things.

  2. Thus we expect things apparently similar to things we perceived previously to be the same as the original objects.

  3. When we expect something, the expectation (or template) tends to override our perceptions. In other words, we tend to “find” what we expect.

  4. Repetition of a message, by making that message part of one’s day-to-day cognitive “background,” leads the listener/watcher to accept the message as ordinary and in a sense, natural. It is easy to assume that, as is the case with many other messages we receive repeatedly, that the message is in a sense "normal."

Because of the templating phenomenon, it matters greatly who defines the situation first. As W. I. Thomas put it, "If men [sic] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." Or, as Gang of Four put it,
We’ve all got opinions—where do they come from?
Each day seems like a natural fact
And what we think changes how we act.

It has been said that you get what you accept. Let’s not accept this.

UPDATE: Here's an excellent post by Monica Youn at Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, with a lot more detail on Harold Koh's career and actual positions on the issues.

UPDATE 2: Scott Horton reports that the Congressional GOP is threatening to block all of Obama's appointments if the administration makes public the torture memos. I guess the GOP has an awful lot to be afraid of there, because this certainly smacks of desperation.